The Aesthetics of the Festival

On April 7, 2019 by admin

mahalaya

 

We celebrate festivals. Actually we celebrate the experience and mood of a festival. Celebrating itself is an art, a primitive and joyous form. Besides, festivals are where we gather as a community—real or virtual. In short, festivals unite us through nurturing of certain rituals and art forms.

I have just now used two phrases: ritual and art-form—but can these two words be brought together so easily? Ritual surely has a strong plinth over which our living as and within communities thrive; but it also has a strong ‘real’ and ‘diurnal’ dimension of religiosity, which resists abstraction. Rituals bind communities by means of highlighting collective participation in and through certain rites, initiations, addresses and customary practices.  Rituals help us immerse vertically in living.  On the other hand art-form is a secular expression, which is beholden to the idea of aesthetics.  Art forms could be autonomous or creations of individual artists which connoisseurs of art are then able to appreciate and judge. The questions of form takes us to a certain mode of abstraction, although created art is very much concrete and in front of us.

When we ‘participate’ in festivals, do we work at the secular or the religious domain, especially if the festival concerned has a strong religious connotation? If the marker of a festival is strongly aesthetic and experiential, can such creations and receptions be called ‘cultural’ and be made part of our modern existence or is all experiential immersion necessarily is a matter of faith and submission that brings it within the purview of the religious?

The Bengali film Mahalaya, directed by Soumik Sen, recently running in the theatres, provides us an occasion to think about such questions afresh. Here is a day that inaugurates the festival of Durga Puja by marking the initiation and commencement of devipaksha. But that day gathers special significance in the collective Bengali psyche since 1931 owing to a special program of chandipath (a form of chanting recited from the scriptural verses of Sri Sri Chandi or Durga Saptashati ) laced with a string of songs aired by All India Radio. The sequence narrates and dramatizes the story of Durga’s annihilating the mahishasura and thereby allegorizing the victory of the benevolent forces over the evil. To the secular listener the whole thing is an act of superb experience of narrative art, with a hint of melodrama, worked out through certain musical and narrativizing techniques. For instance, I have just used the notion of allegorical enactment in order to describe what happens each year in every Bengali household as the voice of Birendra Krishna Bhadra wafts across our habitus,inaugurating the grand festival. Bhadra’s tone, enunciation and consistency then assumes a bardic status which is still secular and cultural. Our inner experience is ignited and collectivized through art every year, it can be argued.

The film dramatizes this event by reminding us of an interruption in this ‘tradition’ in 1976, when the ‘address proper’ and fulcrum of the ritual, the stotraptath/chandipath, was ‘performed’ for once by the favourite matinee idol of  Bengal, Uttam Kumar. The ‘experiment’ by AIR pushed during the time of Emergency was a total washout, an abortive venture. By means of highlighting this break and its catastrophic failure, the film wishes to highlight a particular mode of tradition. This form of recreating tradition stands firmly against the politicization of religion that the far-right peddles. In fact, such a modality of highlighting a consensual Bengali collectivity tries to create a ‘timeless’ middle path. I will argue that this mode is being systematically resuscitated in the Bengali mainstream cultural artifacts, art and literature, films and theatre in the post-liberalization decades. This mode wishes to keep away from both politics (left and right) and also from the ‘play’ in aesthetics by means of consecrating art and turning it ritualistic, auretic and communitarian.

The question of a seemingly cultural experience turns complicated when we also notice certain other makers simultaneously playing, which have arguably converted this modern and technologically mediated experience of the AIR event into a diurnal ritual of timelessness. The film firmly affirms this second view—that tradition (in this case the immersion in bhava and bhakti) may have been a constructed category but sometimes it does turn timeless, universal and gets entrenched within the collective psyche of a people. The film highlights, by means of affirming Bhadra’s voice and Pankaj Kumar’s Mullick’s authoritative presence, a certain investment in collective practice even prior to the creation of the cultural artifact/ritual text. Mullick’s deep engagement with ritualistic exercises, enacted through rigorous collective rehearsals and AIR itself being invested in ritual practice prior to the airing of the programme are key elements in stressing the need to value and nurture this mode of diurnal-cooperative living. To arrive at the correct tempo or techniques of orchestration are not going to even produce such ethereal melody, let alone reach the ‘inner ear’ of the believer. That aspect of musicality shall remain unexamined and mysterious. This is what the film highlights–the excess that flows underneath.

The film also marks the recurrence and repeatability of time. The ecclesiastical year is always marked by recurrence. It does so by suggesting to the viewers that such festivals do not operate independently of a certain consecration of time. Such events occur and perpetuate in its own time and in proper time. Time is not autonomous anymore. It is fulfilled. This is how finite beings connect to eternity, the film tries to tell us. Eventually, the errant ‘artists’, who relied on their individual talents and organizational capacity fail and are brought back into the fold of a mitigating tradition. No one is belittled (RSS is roundly critiqued but not Vivekananda). Everybody realizes with due humility the value and gravitas of that mysterious topos of the inexplicable that joins past with the present, the traditional with the contemporaneous, the aesthetic with the religious. A consensus is reached.

The innovators like the singer Hemanta Mukherjee (Hemant Kumar) are taken to task initially–as brash, selfish and idiosyncratic beings who nurture misguided hubris in dealing with art and tradition. Uttam Kumar, the matinee idol of Bengal, is shown as humble but is also placed against the ongoing flow of tradition. A star is no match for the real charisma of Bhadra, who is projected as an evolved persona having full sense of his surrounding ethos. All icons must pass  through and be with the collective identity. On their own, icons do not matter–this is what the film affirms. Consequently, Uttam Kumar’s version of the AIR programme miserably fails.

In order to buttress the points about a tradition that was initiated by the likes of Tagore (from whose authority Mullick, and we the viewers, draw direct inspiration), the example of a failing Uttam Kumar is a weak example though. The real adversaries of such a form of diurnal and festival art are two other kinds of cultural practices in Bengal which used to have a fair amount of traction at one point. Not anymore perhaps. One, literary and artistic modernism which resisted the Tagorean form of modernity. To consider such a form of modernism means having a very strong stake in existential forms of perception and an investment in temporal, rather than in diurnal experience. In this other ‘tradition’ reality is revealed in and through things and human beings. Art is the revelation of the world; not that of any surpassing experience.

The other is the historical-materialist way of reading such events, which seeks to anticipate a future by means of bursting open the fissures of history. The whole act of such a way of approaching the subject of festivities (not festival) would be through a critique of the ideology of the auretic and processes of production and circulation. These critical ways ought to meet head on the questions of the miraculous and expediential in human mediation. Our critical minds should also be acutely aware of the emergence, ascendency, success and persistence of such kinds of artistic ventures among the mainstream cognoscenti in Bengal—both actual and virtual, in recent times.

Perhaps a point to note in Sen’s Mahalaya is that even while dispassionately presenting on screen a memorable moment in the history of radio in Bengal during the Emergency, the film takes excruciating care not to make even accidental villains of any of Bengal’s cultural icons while they are pitted against each other by forces beyond their control. Uttam Kumar, as a calamitous failure in the experiment of replacing Bhadra as the ritual minstrel, is yet the epitome of humility and grace. The singer Hemanta Mukherjee/Hemant Kumar, villain for a stretch, is also redeemed the concluding part of the film, hailed repeatedly as ‘a legend’ by no less than Pankaj Mullick himself. There can be no compromising the unsullied heroes enshrined in the sensitive collective cultural consciousness of the Bengali spectator.

Bengaliness is an ongoing project. It can only take several twists and turns over the years.

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